Religious missionaries don’t have the best track record when it comes to encountering new communities that aren’t necessarily interested in getting to know their faith. While some are genuinely invested in helping people come to know and love a higher power and find spirituality, others seek instead to rid them of fidelity to other gods and assimilate them into a more palatable practice. Lee Tamahori’s latest film, The Convert, presents a third scenario, where a man of god charged to lead a community chooses instead to explore a new culture without imposing his own beliefs on them.
Thomas Munro (Guy Pearce) arrives in Epworth, a British settlement in what will later become New Zealand, in the early 19th century. He has been hired to be the town’s preacher, but his encounter with two warring Māori tribes moves him to save the life of Rangimai (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne) when she is facing certain death. When the British provide her with an icy reception, Munro comes to see that the calling he feels compels him to act to try to save as many people as possible, focusing not on souls in the afterlife but instead on the living and breathing Māori people who are killing each other while the British continue to occupy more of their land.
This film begins by explaining the shift in weaponry available to the Māori at the time of its events, with muskets newly introduced along with another import: Christianity. One is definitely felt much more prominently than the other, since Munro is barely seen actually preaching. The prominence of muskets means the capacity for much more destruction and a sense of detachment from the act of killing, since traditional weaponry has much more meaning than a mass-produced gun sold at a high markup by European traders. The early scenes of raids show just how much damage they can inflict on unsuspecting tribes, decimating their numbers in minutes and targeting the defenseless thanks to their longer ranges.
Munro is someone who can see the big picture, and while there are times when this feels like a white savior story, that’s precisely the conversation that this film seems to want to prompt. Munro’s warnings that the English are only selling the Māori muskets so that they will kill each other off is dismissed as reductive, but it also allows the settlers to live undisturbed if the indigenous population is controlled by internal infighting. Munro does something truly ahead of his time: he speaks little and chooses instead to listen, well aware that his narrative and worldview are not held by everyone and will not serve him to share. In a film filled with senseless murder and trauma, the notion of a religious leader choosing to truly embrace all human beings just as they are is an affirming bright spot.
Though it takes place centuries ago, this film offers plenty of lessons about what it means to be honorable and decent as well as the futility of war. One tribe leader declares that they will achieve peace through war, in that they will vanquish their enemies and then enjoy a period of tranquility where they are the dominant people. Munro pleads desperately for peace, knowing that too many will die for no good reason, but he also acknowledges that the Māori culture has its own ideas about revenge and justice. There’s an unfortunate irony in the British view of the Māori as savages where they only perpetuate that by treating them as subhuman, foregoing honor and dignity for those they see as inferior, a practice lacking in any value other than brutality.
Though it’s billed as an “action-filled historical epic,” that framing feels somewhat insensitive given the pervasive violence that costs so many innocent lives. This is a well-made drama about imperialism and the way in which cultures interact, shaping one another through unwanted influences and invited collaborations alike. Its surroundings are appropriately sparse, occasionally offering a glimpse of the beautiful nearby water, a symbol of the serenity that could be achieved if only the bloodshed would stop. The Convert is an effective period piece that feels all too relevant for our times.
This review is from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.